While the presence of “Minding the Gap” and “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” in the Oscar documentary feature category suggest a welcome evolution in the way the Academy thinks about nonfiction filmmaking, the documentary short ballot hasn’t changed much from years past. Once again, just causes, rather than great cinema, dominate the list of nominees, serving as a kind of armchair activism for voters, who tend to back the issue that matters most to them. Here, the choices range from empowering women in developing nations to easing terminal patients with end-of-life choices.
The first film screened in ShortsTV’s two-hour-plus theatrical program, Ed Perkins’ “Black Sheep,” is the most most stylistically daring, interweaving a compelling direct-to-camera interview with Cornelius Walker with equally powerful reenactment footage of his adolescence in Essex, where the young Nigerian immigrant learned to hate the color of his own skin. The story is reminiscent of British actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s autobiographical debut, “Farming,” revealing racism to be almost like an infectious disease. It’s been three decades since Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line” was snubbed by the Academy for its use of similar techniques, which Perkins has all but perfected: Actor Kai Francis-Lewis plays the young man as Walker describes how, after being taunted and beaten by white teens, he tried to make himself look white, going so far as to bleach his face. At one point, for a brief flicker, Walker puts in the blue contacts he wore as a teen — allowing us to study his eyes while also seeing through them.
Seasoned documentary duo Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (who co-directed “The Celluloid Closet” and “Paragraph 175”) are back in nonfiction territory with “End Game,” a 40-minute look at hospice and palliative care at UCSF Medical Center. Not quite as clinical or detached as Dan Krauss’ 2016 “Extremis” (another Oscar-nominated Netflix doc about death-bed decisions), the short is nevertheless a tough one to watch, if only because we know there are no happy endings for these terminally ill patients. On the other hand, the filmmakers have found a one-of-a-kind subject in physician BJ Miller, who lost three limbs after being electrocuted as a teen, and who now coaches those with severe illness on how to reorient their expectations about death. Miller’s insights have been so useful as to have caught Oprah Winfrey’s attention (audiences may have seen him on her show), and one needn’t be hospitalized or faced with losing relatives to benefit from his unique perspective.
In “Lifeboat,” director Skye Fitzgerald embeds himself with a group called Sea-Watch — a refugee search-and-rescue organization allied with the Rome-based Maritime Rescue Coordination Center — as former Greenpeace captain Jon Castle (since deceased) and his team intervene on behalf of those attempting to reach Europe by sea. According to the statistic that closes the film, one in 18 people attempting to cross the Mediterranean perishes in the process. Although Europe is clearly overwhelmed by the crisis (see 2016’s similarly themed “4.1 Miles”), the first step is recognizing the mass of immigrants as individuals. As Castle puts it, “We could be those people.” Fitzgerald’s beautifully photographed film isn’t designed to make heroes of the rescuers. Rather, it treats the refugees as fellow humans, focusing on their faces, allowing them to tell their stories, and asking audiences to identify with the reasons they are willing to risk their lives to escape their situations.
At just seven minutes, Marshall Curry’s undeniably disturbing “A Night at the Garden” assembles archival footage from various sources to let audiences into New York’s Madison Square Garden on Feb. 20, 1939, when 20,000 German-Americans gathered for a “Pro American Rally.” Under the pretext of patriotism and white pride, the attendees raise their right arms in a Nazi salute as a column of flags — half American, the others German (bearing the swastika) — marches down the center aisle. It’s a startling image, and yet it doesn’t quite compute with the massive banner of George Washington hanging behind the stage (the event was staged around the president’s birthday). Still, it’s impossible not to bristle as thickly accented and openly bigoted Bund leader Fritz Kuhn steps forward to spew anti-Semitism and fear of “Moscow-directed domination” — at which point a Jewish protester rushes the stage.
Produced by Laura Poitras’ Field of Vision shingle, “A Night at the Garden” plays like a scene from Sinclair Lewis’ cautionary satire “It Can’t Happen Here” (or later, Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America”), and though Curry’s context-lacking montage chills the blood, it shouldn’t be confused with the alarming rise of Nazism in our country today — for now, unlike in 1939, the world knows the sheer villainy of Hitler’s intent and must recognize the danger so-called nationalism poses to everything America stands for. Audiences interested in the topic should seek out Walter F. Parkes and Keith F. Critchlow’s astonishing Oscar-nominated 1975 feature “The California Reich” (available on YouTube), about practicing Nazis in the United States. Rather than doing the tough work of exposing such extremists today, Curry’s short is almost propagandistic in its own way, edited to emphasize parallels to Trump rallies and the demagoguery heard there.
That’s entirely different from the engagement director Rayka Zehtabchi seeks from her excellent, activist-minded “Period. End of Sentence.” Although basically a half-hour promo for Oakland School’s Pad Project, the film simultaneously educates and inspires as a group of American students (never shown) combat the stigma that surrounds menstruation halfway around the world by donating a device for making sanitary pads. Responding to problems in the patriarchal system of India — where one ignorant male interviewee says, “I’ve heard it’s an illness that mostly affects girls” — “Period” illustrates a variation on the “Give a man a fish” proverb: Teach women to make pads, and they not only discover how to greet their monthly visitor but now have a source of income to empower their independence. It’s only a matter of time before Bollywood gets on the bandwagon, à la “Toilet: A Love Story,” to spread the word.